Make the Best of Your Reading Time: Retro Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Amanda Sass-Henke
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born or who are parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here…And I pray to God you’ll make the best of yours” (129).
“Why have I never read this book before?” I wondered in July of 2001 when I first read Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I was 22; my reading was forced by the inheritance of this text in my future classroom. And as I read, I was angry that I needed any sort of push to read this book. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry quickly transformed from “I have to read this book” to “I want to read this book” within a few minutes of opening its cover.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry draws the reader into a community through the eyes of Cassie Logan. As I read, David and Mary became my parents, who I looked to explain the injustices of the world. Stacey was the brother who was too cool to be around me; TJ was the foolish neighbor who was always in trouble; Miss Crocker and Mr. Simms served as the unfair authority figures. And nine-year-old Cassie was me, a modern-day reader who approached many of the conflicts and societal norms of 1933 with the same naiveté and confusion as her. Cassie asked the questions I wanted answered: “How come Papa come home and brung Mr. Morrison?” (38), “What Mr. Granger need more land for?” (88), “How come I gotta go ‘round calling her ‘Miz’ like she grown or something?” (126), and “But T.J, Mama….What about T.J.?” (269). Never had I felt so connected to a character – Cassie and I faced it together and listened carefully as the role models in the community tried to enlighten not just her, but us.
And enlighten us, they did with wise words. Both David and Mary Logan are quintessential truth-sayers. They are the paragon of parenting, for they tell it like it is but with empathy and gentleness. In Chapter 6, after Cassie is forced to apologize to Lillian Jean for accidentally bumping into her, Mary Logan (Mama) explains to Cassie, “White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anyone else” (127). She explains it simply enough for a nine-year-old to understand, and for readers like me to see the harsh spoken and unspoken truth that lives in Spokane County. David Logan (Papa) also characterizes Mama’s gentleness, but with a dose of realism:
There are things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on. But it’s up to you to decide what them things are. You have to demand respect in this world, ain’t nobody just gonna hand it to you. How you carry yourself, what you stand for – that’s how you gain respect. But, little one, ain’t nobody’s respect worth more than your own. You understand that? (175-76)
These teachable moments are tied to a gripping plot that sucks a reader out of the modern day and transports him/her back to the Great Depression and the divided community of Spokane County, Mississippi. As readers watch the news headlines of today and read the about the Logans, the Averys, the Grangers, the Simms, and the many other families that make up the community of this book, it is clear as Mildred D. Taylor writes in the foreword, “Today’s generation of children, as well as many of their parents and teachers, have not had to endure such indignities or even worse aspects of racism that once pervaded America, and I am grateful for that. But, unfortunately, as we all know, racism still exists” (ix). This novel helps remove a blindfold to see a painful part of our history and exposes struggles that still exist today. It fits as a precursor to Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and a follow-up to Draper’s Stella By Starlight, and it provides an opening for conversations at home and in the classroom.
Each year I give a book talk on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and as I hold the smooth hardcover copy in my hands, I tell my middle school students to follow Mary Logan’s advice by making the best of their time, including their reading time. I don’t want them to wait until they’re 22 to hear David Logan’s stories or think about Mary Logan’s wise words or live vicariously through Cassie Logan’s coming of age experience. It is my hope that those stories, words, and experiences will help them fulfill exactly what Mary Logan wanted for Cassie by making the best of their own lives and helping others do the same.
Amanda Sass-Henke is the literacy and media specialist at Orono Middle School in Long Lake, Minnesota. Prior to that, she taught middle school English for 15 years. She spends her days trying to balance her reading life with motherhood, running, cooking, and being a lifelong student. Follow her and her love of literacy on Twitter (@SpartansReadK12) as well as Facebook (SpartansRead!), and Instagram (spartansread278).